Twentysomething is a brand new comedy produced for ABC 2. Twentysomething started off on C31 where it quickly built up a bit of a cult following. The creative team, Jess Harris and Josh Schmidt are both writers, actors and producers. The first time around they directed themselves, but on this version, director Paul Currie was brought onboard to direct the pair.
I’m working again with the fabulous Nicole Minchin, who produced Lowdown which also aired on the ABC earlier in the year, which was recently been nominated for an AFI for best comedy.
Both Josh and Jess have some experience with performance, but they aren’t what you’d call traditionally trained actors. The budget for Twenthysomething was exceptionally low…or perhaps challenging would be the more positive way to spin it ! It’s also a location heavy show and I realised we needed to be a bit of an SAS unit We had to be really fast, mobile and reactive.
Josh and Jess also like to improvise a bit and we had to adopt a looser and less restrictive shooting style to accommodate this. They weren’t going to be hitting marks and we also didn’t want to have to impose a film making process on them and change their unique style that had already brought them recognition from the C31 version of their show.
Josh shoots a fair bit himself and is certainly familiar with cameras and how to operate them Both Josh and Jess had some very strong opinions about how the show should look. And large sensor look was part of their wish list. They were adamant they didn’t want an observational style of coverage though. They still wanted it to be crafted, but not shot like a documentary.
So we had to be super fast with a low footprint and loose shooting style that could accommodate non-actors and still get something that didn’t look like it was shot with a handy cam, but with the smallest production budget of any show I’d worked on. Piece of cake really !
Initially I was wary, because large sensor to me really means a camera like RED. Josh had floated the idea of looking at a camera like the 5D, but I was really skeptical that it could be done successfully for drama style shooting. I was worried about image quality for starters, and the operational issues that make it such a difficult camera to use just in the hand.
But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it could be done. Part of me also wanted to see if indeed it could be done !
So I suggested we shoot a test. I also hadn’t actually worked on set with Josh or Jess before, nor the director Paul, so it would be a great chance to shoot a scene or two from the scripts and get to know them on set without having to commit scene to the final cut.
We selected two scenes from the show, one that was a day exterior and one that was a night interior. We shot the same scene 3 times, once with a Sony EX3, once with a RED and once with a 1DmkIV.
The footage was edited together then graded at deluxe by Amanda Short. We were all surprised at how close the 1D came to the RED in terms of dynamic range and grade-ability. Josh and Jess certainly liked the idea that we could be a little more discreet. We discovered another reason to consider shooting with a DSLR. It would mean we could afford to shoot with two cameras. We found that Josh and Jess would never do the same thing twice. Which was I guess obvious, because that’s how their working style had evolved. We just had to find a way to accommodate it. Two cameras would allow us to cross shoot their performance and reduce the potential for continuity discrepancies.
The only problem was that the budget was so tight, there was no room for an additional camera operator. I then made the choice to promote Cameron Gaze, my focus puller to camera operator.
Cam was very familiar with the Canon DSLR as he’s a terrific stills and wedding photographer in his own right. I knew he’d be comfortable using them. I’d already decided that I’d shoot the show using stock canon stills lenses. Again, I wasn’t really happy with the pimped up versions of DSLR rigs I’d seen. I did in fact test a few, including the movie tube but they all seemed to add complication without a lot of upside. At least with a naked DSLR and a stock lens, the camera was exceptionally small.
By forgoing any of the usual accessorizing, it also meant we had limited options for having a video split. With the Canon DSLR’s, you loose the LCD monitor on the back once you plug into the HDMI connection on the back. Having a split commits the operator to operating off of an onboard monitor so that you loop out to then feed a second monitor for the director. Once again, it starts bogging down and unbalancing the camera and making it much harder to use.
I instead organised for Zacuto Z Finders to aid focus and framing in bright daylight conditions and a simple Zacuto hand held rig, just in case we wanted to have something more solid, but 90% of the time, cam and I simply operated the cameras as they come from canon, including pulling our own focus.
In the end Cam and I used an improvised sling which was a cine saddle around the neck and shoulders which we could then balance our elbows into and I sometimes used a monopod for longer lens shots.
Paul and I came a gentleman’s agreement that we would shoot without a video split system at all … and I had to have the final veto over where the staging should be within a given location, so that I could pursue the lighting style we’d chosen to adopt.
Cam did such a great job and considering his relative lack of operating credits he produced some terrific frames and was always on the job.
Josh and Jess did have a main house location that they lived in from the 2nd episode and this was the location that we spend the most amount of time in. With my gaffer Daryle Pearson, we tried to light through the sources that already existed. We did simple bounce’s though the windows from the exterior rather than using any units inside the house. This meant we could have a wider field of shooting for the cast without seeing lighting fixtures of stands and gave it a more naturalistic look. We also used a lot of prac lamps, especially for and night shoots and Production designer Xanthe Highfield did an awesome job of populating the locations with plenty of lamps for us to use.
Our approach ended up being a little too successful. Paul had a rapid prototyping technique that he worked up with the Josh and Jess to try and get as many subtle variations in performance out of them as he could while we were rolling. We’d often re-do individual lines within a take and he’d give one word notes to them in the middle of a take to try and provoke different performances. It meant we started shooting a lot of takes and a lot of performances.
I don’t think the post guys anticipated just how long it would take to transcode the h.264 files from the Canon and when restarted giving them 6 hours worth of rushes from the days shooting they started to really struggle to get through it all ! We were of course shooting the equivalent of 20-30 takes so there were always plenty of options ! I don’t think it was helped by the choice for AVID based editing either as this only seemed to increase the transcode times.
Paul did get frustrated at not being able to monitor the two cameras and would usually watch over the back of one of our shoulders as the takes were shot. We didn’t have a split, and we certainly didn’t have the manpower to have someone setting one up. He was frustrated and in the end, Lemac gave us a great deal on a wireless split system and we ended up carrying a titan transmitter with each camera so he could switch on a single handheld monitor between each camera during the take.
So in the end we compromised on the split option for the final 2 weeks of out shoot. It meant we carried a little more weight, but it didn’t feel like it hindered our operations as much as we simply used the SD video output which doesn’t switch off the monitoring on the back of the camera like the HDMI port does.
I initially was leaning to wards shooting with two 7D’s, but I was concerned about the amount of low light shooting we had to do. I knew the 1Dmk4 was slightly better in low light and I felt like having one of each would cover my bases.
During pre-production we tested a lot of the in-camera settings to try and get the most dynamic range out of the camera. We ended up creating a log-like picture profile (now duplicated by the technicolour profile) which gave us the flattest and low contrast look possible. I rolled of the saturation and sharpness too which seemed to help with reducing aliasing.
One of the first scenes we did was a long steadicam opening shot for the first episode where Jess leaves hospital in the morning after faking illness and having used it to crash after a big night out.
I didn’t have any easy way of doing an iris pull to accommodate the huge brightness differences between the interior and exterior and I realised I could just use the auto ISO function. I worked out an aperture split that would hold and then simply let the camera auto iris to auto expose for me. Something you can’t currently do with any other digital cinema camera ! Neat.
It was very liberating to shoot a show in a looser way, embracing a more guerrilla style, but still trying to get some great looking results. I really liked being able to have such a low impact on the actors space by shooting in such a discrete way. I think they really appreciated us keeping our presence as low key as possible.
Cam and I both became really good at getting the most out of the cameras limited shooting abilities and I’m really thrilled with how well the look of the show as turned out, considering my initial reservations about shooting with DSLR’s.
** EDIT. Forgot to mention EXTRA special thanks to the guys at Camera Action Camera House for all their great help in putting our camera package together. They really helped me to navigate the relatively new field of DSLR shooting and they were just fantastic with all of their support and service.